Crazy in Alabama (1999)
Directed by Antonio Banderas
Cast: Melanie Griffith, Lucas Black, David Morse, Meat Loaf Aday, Cathy Moriarty, Louis Miller Jr., John Beasley, Elizabeth Perkins, Rod Steiger, Richard Schiff, Sandra Seacat.
1999 104 minutes
Rated: (for mild violence and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 26, 1999.
Over the years, there have been innumerable films made about the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, to the point where a filmmaker couldn't possibly say anything that hasn't already been said before. With that noted, "Crazy in Alabama" doesn't have any original insights into the era, nor is it particularly well-handled in that arena. Fortunately, we virtually get two 45-minute movies that interweave between one another, until they come together in the climax, and the other story is the one that sparkles.
Based on the novel by Mark Childress, this comedy-drama, set in the summer of 1965 in the Deep South, makes no excuses for its eccentricities, as Lucille (Melanie Griffith), a 34-year-old housewife with seven children, tells her mother (Sandra Seacat) even before the opening credits that she not only poisoned her husband, but decapitated him. Wacky, but otherwise not dangerous, Lucille did what she did because her abusive marriage was suffocating her, and she has no regrets. Leaving her kids with her mother, Lucille, and with her husband's head in tow, sets off for Hollywood to become what she's always dreamt of being--an actress. But not so fast, because as Lucille's story plays out, the film is narrated by her nephew, Peejoe (Lucas Black), a 13-year-old who admires his Aunt Lucille to no end, and is sent away to live with his loving uncle (David Morse) and narrow-minded aunt (Cathy Moriarty) for the summer. While at the city's public swimming pool, he briefly meets another kid (Louis Miller Jr.) just a few years older than he before witnessing him later thrown from a fence by the crooked sheriff (Meat Loaf Aday) after banishing him from the pools because of his race. The kid dies, the sheriff claims he never touched him, but Peejoe knows the truth, and doesn't want him to get away with it. Meanwhile, as Lucille garners a guest spot on the television show, "Bewitched," she senses that the police are soon going to close in on her.
While the story of Peejoe, as he learns several life lessons about the importance of equality and tolerance, feels rather by-the-numbers and predictable, "Crazy in Alabama" ultimately works due to the unforgettable character of Lucille, played by Melanie Griffith in her first truly worthwhile starring role since 1991's "Paradise." Griffith is often criticized for playing the ditzy blond with the childish, high voice, and those detractors of her work have always mystified me. While she may not always make the right career moves, Griffith is a wonderful actress who can effortlessly play both comedy and drama, and some people seem to forget that she was nominated for an Academy Award in 1988 for her breakthrough role in "Working Girl." "Crazy in Alabama" plays up both sides of her acting talent, and she steals the film away from everyone else within the first five minutes. Just take a look at the sequence midway through in which Lucille is talking on the phone with Peejoe, and after he asks her if she's alright, she replies, "Yes, I'm alright. I'm free! For the first time in my entire life I am free!" Griffith says the words with such effervescent life that it's obvious she is a performer who loves what she does, and is instantly charming.
As her counterpart, Lucas Black gives another effective, understated performance after his role in 1996's "Sling Blade." If the subplot about the wrongful murder of the black child, and Peejoe's struggle to let people know the truth concerning his death, is cliched, at least Black is able to create a character that is worth following, even when the plot surrounding him isn't.
Both characters end up together for a climactic trial, after Lucille has been arrested, and my heart almost sank. After all, did we really need to have to sit through another stock courtroom scene? Luckily, it worked, managing to pull both laughs and bittersweet truth out of the matters at hand, and never went sappy like so many films of its ilk usually do. On the downside, the picture ends before the other subplot, involving the crime that the sheriff commits, is solved, and so we are left hanging by a plot thread that we had just dedicated 45 minutes of our time with.
"Crazy in Alabama" is helmed by actor Antonio Banderas, making his directing debut, and even when the film smells of the word, "amateur," Banderas can rest assured that, in a week which saw six major film releases, he made one out of only two movies that I liked (the other being Martin Scorsese's masterful "Bringing Out the Dead"). The premise may not sound like the most probable choice for someone from a foreign country, but Banderas proves that you can successfully make a film that doesn't relate directly to you, simply if the underlying themes are felt deeply enough.
©1999 by Dustin Putman